Can you smell the brand new sod, the Wilson GST footballs fresh out of the boxes and the hope that has been restored in Chapel Hill? That’s because Tar Heel spring football is right around the corner. As previously announced, the Heels will begin spring football on March 3rd, and there are some major camp battles that will be talked about throughout spring camp. Here are the top five to keep an eye on when spring camp opens on Sunday.
Honorable Mention: Starting Kicker
A quietly important matchup, the Heels will have the task of replacing Freeman Jones (69-70 XP, 27-42 FG) after his graduation. The favorite going in will be sophomore Noah Ruggles (1-2 XP, 0-0 FG), who was the backup to Jones a year ago and is the only kicker in the competition that will be on scholarship entering the spring and brings a strong leg to the table. Redshirt freshman walk-on Nicky Solomon will be the other returning competitor after he had a solid prep career that saw him hit all but one of his senior season field goals from 35+ yards, so he has good leg strength, as well. The newbie will be walk-on Jonathan Kim who joins the team as a preferred walk-on in fall. If both Ruggles or Solomon fail to separate themselves, then the true freshman who was a three-year starter at the high school level will get a shot to win the job in August.
5. Starting Cornerback
One of the battles that no one would have seen coming last offseason would be the battle opposite of Patrice Rene, but this will be an intriguing one going forward this spring. Rene locked up the starting job with a phenomenal second half of the season in 2018, but last year’s locked in starter, senior K.J. Sails (30 ttkl, 1.0 TFL, 13 PD in 2017) will be hoping to return to his starting role after missing the final eight games of the 2018 due to an undisclosed injury, but will have to become more consistent if he wants to win the job back. That’s because sophomore Trey Morrison (46 ttkl, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 scks, 4 PD in 2018), who started at nickel in last years defense, has been displaced and he has the coverage ability to make the move to the outside without much issue. With his tackling ability in open space and ability to fly around the field, he might be needed at safety. If so, that would leave sophomore C.J. Cotman (6 ttkl in 2018) as the toughest challenger to Sails if he can return from the injury that cost him nine games in 2018. Junior Greg Ross Jr. (31 ttkl, 3 PD) has the experience after starting seven games a year ago, but he really struggled in his time as a starter.
4. Starting Outside Linebackers
The Heels will be switching to the 3-4 scheme defensively under new defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, and one of the keys to that new defensive scheme will be the outside linebackers. The outside linebackers will have a similar role that the 4-3 defensive ends did in the previous scheme but will do so from the 9-technique instead of the 7-technique. They may also be tasked with dropping into coverage, so finding the right fits will be important. Junior Tyrone Hopper (10 ttkl, 0.5 TFL, 0.0 scks in 2018) seems like a given considering he came to Carolina as a outside linebacker before converting to outside linebacker. Sophomore Chris Collins (6 ttkl, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sck in 2018) was being talked about as a candidate to move to linebacker last spring before eventually staying at defensive end and contributing once Cater went down with the injury, so he may see heavy consideration for one of the vacant jobs. Redshirt freshman Lancine Turay has the pass rushing style that could fit the 3-4 scheme, the question will be, as with many of the candidates, will be can he hold his own in coverage. Keep an eye on some of the players who were recruited as strongside defensive ends in the 2019 class to also factor in both of these battles.
3. Starting Strong Safety
While free safety is in good hands with Myles Dorn, the Heels will be searching for a replacement for J.K. Britt at strong safety. Morrison may be the solution here, as he is athletic enough to play sideline-to-sideline and is a strong open-field tackler, as well as be able to cover 1-on-1 against the athletic tight ends and running backs, exactly what the Heels will need at strong safety. Junior Myles Wolfolk (24 ttkl, 1.0 TFL) was off to a good start after replacing the injured Dorn early last season, but missed the final seven games due to an undisclosed injury. He contains a similar skill set to Morrison and holds the experience edge, but isn’t quite as fluid in coverage as Morrison is. Then there are the true freshmen. Both Khadry Jackson and Giovanni Biggers are great fits for this Bateman’s defense, with Biggers having the edge in pass coverage and Jackson having the edge as an in-the-box defender. Others that could factor in are junior D.J. Ford (18 ttkl, 2 PD in his career) and redshirt freshman Bryson Richardson (4 ttkl, INT, PD).
2. Starting Left Tackle
William Sweet’s unexpected early departure to the NFL has left a huge hole along the offensive line at the units most important position. The favorite to win the starting job will be the player who took over at the position when Sweet missed the final game of the season against NC State in sophomore Jordan Tucker. Tucker handled him well in the game against the Wolfpack, who still boasted one of the best offensive lines in the ACC last season. Tucker has the movement necessary to handle himself at left tackle and is a strong pass protector, something the Heels will need with the switch to Phil Longo’s air-raid offense. Battling Tucker will be talented redshirt freshman William Barnes who showed good upside last fall where he saw some snaps at left guard before Billy Ross eventually took over the starting job full time. His talent might be the best in the offensive line room and he has the movement skills to play left tackle. True freshman Triston Miller could make the race interesting if Tucker and Barnes are unable to separate themselves, as he possesses the size and talent to contribute immediately if needed. A dark horse in the race could be Mason Veal, who converted to guard last year, but has played tackle before in his career. This could be a battle that will extend into the fall.
1. Starting Quarterback
It’s the position that has seen a quarterback battle since Mitch Trubisky graduated back in 2016 and once again it will be the battle of focus for many around the Tar Heel football program. The favorite heading in will be redshirt freshman Cade Fortin (49.2% comp, 388 yds, TD, INT) who started two games in 2018, including the season finale against NC State, where he threw for 276 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Fortin had the strongest arms of all of the quarterbacks on the roster a year ago, and the same may be true this season, although true freshman Sam Howell will give Fortin a run for his money in that category. The early enrollee tore up the state of North Carolina record books in his four years as a high school starter and fits the playbook well. Howell ran an advanced offense at the high school level, including plenty of RPO, so the transition will not be as much of an issue for him as for other quarterbacks. The talent is there, the question is just can he win the job outright. There will be another competitor in this competition, though, and this wild card won’t exit this race without a fight. Redshirt freshman Jace Ruder (4-5, 80 yds, TD, 0 INT, 3 rush, 21 yds in one game) impressed in his small sample size against Georgia Tech, showcasing a quick, accurate release and the ability to get the ball down the field, as well before going down with a shoulder injury. Ruder is the most dangerous runner of the quarterback group, which adds the extra dimension, but sleep on Howell’s athleticism. Still, Ruder is a good enough all-around gunslinger and has the upside to make things interesting in this three-man battle. There are some that believe senior Nathan Elliott could still factor in because of seniority, but his game does not fit the new playbook, especially considering the more balanced playbook of Chris Kapilovic’s was limited a year ago due to his lack of arm strength. This battle should extend well into fall camp, but I’d be shocked if Longo let this carry over into the fall unless no one is able to establish an sort of separation.